LAUSD’s Apartheid Hall of Shame (Part One)

school disciplineSubstitute teacher’s lesson plan found at King-Drew Medical Magnet in South Los Angeles (U.S. News & World Report, Silver Medal Winner for 2009):

1. Vocabulary

2. Rap to kill time

Sitting in the sparsely filled auditorium of Gardena High School in Los Angeles at the beginning of an annual senior awards ceremony, I looked around, and wondered; where the hell are the black parents?? I was attending the ceremony to see students from my Women’s Leadership Project program, the majority of which are African American and en route to four-year colleges, receive much-deserved awards for service and academic achievement. Although black students comprise around 32% of the school’s student body, the vast majority of the award recipients were Asian (5% of the population) and Latino (60% of the population). The underrepresentation of black student awardees is the flip side of a national crisis that has received exhaustive, hand-wringing coverage but elicited little activist groundswell or targeted outrage.

The apartheid culture of black suspensions, which pervades urban school districts like Los Angeles Unified, has become a ho-hum business-as-usual human rights violation. Data on disproportionate black suspension rates is an acknowledged part of national discourse on education “reform.” The subject made the news again recently with the release of yet another study by the Council of State Governments on suspensions in Texas schools. Attorney General Eric Holder even deigned to weigh in, calling the study’s findings a “wake-up call.”

The study seemingly revived mainstream attention to the longstanding debate about racial disproportionality and school discipline. But to those who are critically conscious about the role disproportionate discipline plays in the school-to-prison pipeline, this latest report was no revelation. It concluded that black and Latino students were disciplined far more harshly than white students who’d committed similar offenses. Black students were more likely to get off site suspensions and transfers to alternative schools. White students were more likely to receive counseling and on-site suspension or detention. As a result, students of color were more likely to drop-out of school.

The report suggested that disparate discipline was symptomatic of deeply entrenched negative teacher perceptions about black and brown students. As progressive black educators have long maintained, the picture in the LAUSD is even more egregious. After a careful study of the data of middle schools and high schools across the District, black students were disproportionately suspended and OTed (“opportunity” transferred to other schools) regardless of the racial background of the faculty and administration or racial demographics and socioeconomic background of a given school.

In some schools the ratio is astounding, an open secret that reflects profoundly on the degree to which black students in “post-racial” America are stigmatized by deep intractable stereotypes about black criminality, pathology and dysfunction. From South L.A. to the Westside to the Valley the implication is the same—black students are natural hellions that need to be controlled, neutralized and heavily policed to maintain the institutional “sanity” of chaotic urban schools. In a recent discussion about adult perceptions one of my students noted that some teachers appear to be “scared” of their students. Being scared of students means that teachers have low expectations, are more inclined to be reactive in their response to disruption, assign busywork and execute hierarchical classroom management.

Consequently, some teachers will let them sit in racially segregated cliques, talk, disrupt and generally do what they want; then refer only those that they feel most threatened by out of class. National research, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2010 middle school study and Indiana University’s 2000 “The Color of Discipline” report, has consistently shown that black students do not, in fact, “offend” at higher rates than their white and Latino counterparts. Moreover, socioeconomic disparities, as it is often claimed, don’t explain racial disproportionalities because middle class African Americans in higher income schools are also disproportionately suspended. This implies that black students are perceived by adults as more viscerally threatening.


Indeed, “The Color of Discipline” report found that black students were more likely to be referred out of class for excessive noise, disrespect, loitering and “threat.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center report approximately 20% of the teachers were responsible for 80% of suspensions. Ultimately “race and gender disparities in suspension were due not to differences in administrative disposition but to differences in the rate of initial referral of black and white students.”

In the LAUSD the numbers for the 2009-2010 school year speak for themselves.* At Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles (with a predominantly black faculty) black and Latino students are almost equal in number yet black students account for 62% of those suspended. At Venice High School on the Westside black students represent 9.5% of the population and 25% of those suspended. At Hamilton High they represented over half of the opportunity transfers despite being only 28.5% of the population. In 2008-09 they were 57% of those suspended at Hamilton; in 2009-10 they were 51% of those suspended. At Fairfax High School black students were 18.3% of the population yet represented 43.5% of suspensions. With the exception of Washington Prep, all of these schools had majority Latino populations.

Things are even more heinous at the middle school level. Middle school has been characterized by some researchers as the gateway for student success. A 2003 Johns Hopkins University study by Robert Balfanz found that poor performance and low attendance in middle school were some of the most reliable predictors of incarceration rates and drop-out at the high school level. At Audubon Middle School, which has one of the last majority black populations in the district, the stats are off the charts. Black students are 64.9% of the population yet represent a whopping 85% of those suspended (total suspensions were 481).

Latino students are at 33% yet constitute only 15% of suspensions. It should also be noted that Audubon has a black principal. At Drew Middle School (16% black) and Foshay (18% black) African Americans represent nearly half of those suspended while Latino students, who represent 83% and 80% of each respective school’s population, are grossly underrepresented in suspensions. At Mann Middle School African Americans and Latinos are equal in the population yet blacks represent 71% of those suspended and the majority of those OT-ed. At John Muir Middle School blacks are 23% of the population and 49% of the suspensions. At Peary Middle School in Gardena they are 28% of the population and 59% of those suspended.

Acknowledging the role suspensions played in the district’s skyrocketing drop-out rates, the LAUSD adopted its so-called School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) plan in 2007. The policy was designed to develop alternative “inclusionary” approaches to discipline by addressing the “environmental factors that trigger misbehavior.” After the implementation of the policy, some LAUSD schools did reduce suspension numbers from the 2008-2009 to the 2009-2010 school year. However, according to a 2010 report by CADRE (Community Asset Redevelopment Re-defining Education), a community-based organization comprised of parents, students and legal advocates, implementation of the new policy was sporadic. Schools that actually increased suspensions after the implementation of the plan included Gompers Middle School (with a whopping 960 suspensions and a 1467 student population) in Watts, Gardena High School (531) and Jordan High School (423).


Grassroots activist organizations like the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) are intimately acquainted with the implications of these disparities. The organization runs Free L.A. high school, a partnership with John Muir Charter School that is specifically designed for formerly incarcerated 16-24 year old youth. YJC executive director Kim McGill notes that many of its students have been pushed out of several schools before they enroll at Free L.A.

Despite the District’s public relations emphasis on SWPBS, the CADRE report (which focused on Local District 7 in South L.A.) concluded that parents had

The majority of parents surveyed expressed ignorance of it and had not received input from the District. Only a small minority of the schools surveyed actually bothered to include parents on their SWPBS implementation committees. CADRE found that the majority of the schools in the local district surveyed were somewhere between zero implementation and partial implementation.

Yet the other significant aspect of this data is that it starkly disrupts the oft-cited premise of black and Latino congruence when it comes to discipline. Currently the LAUSD is over 70% Latino and 11% African American. Due to such factors as black outmigration and black enrollment in charter and private schools, the number of black students in the District declines every year. Black students are targeted, penalized and pushed-out in dizzyingly obscene numbers that predict and mirror their disproportionate numbers in L.A. County juvenile detention centers and adult prisons.

In L.A. there also appears to be a correlation between declining numbers of black students and grossly disproportionate black suspension rates. At South Los Angeles middle school campuses with smaller numbers of black students (such as Bethune, Carver, Drew and Foshay) black student suspensions were two or three times greater than the number of black students in the general school population.

sikivu hutchinsonNot surprisingly, recently appointed LAUSD superintendent John Deasy— lauded by some for his alleged transparency and “reformer’s” chops—declined to be interviewed for this article. In a district where black students are already presumed guilty until proven innocent, Gardena High School’s racially lopsided awards ceremony was not only criminal, it was yet another indication of how black students are still being systematically discarded, held hostage not only by blatant push-out strategies but by bogus reform that straightjackets children of color with one-size-fits-all bromides. Where is the outrage?

Next: Community Organizing, Teachers’ Perceptions and the District’s Response.

Sikivu Hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson is an educator, founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, and author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011).

*Data compiled by author from



  1. Sylvia Pardo says

    I have taught 18 years in LAUSD as a 1st grade teacher in 2 different schools. In both schools black students were about 10% of the population. Without fail each year the 1 or 2 black children placed in our classes were nearly always the ones who fought with other children, had severe classroom behavior issues, could not adjust to classroom rules, and did not respond to positive encouragement for appropriate behavior. Neither school wanted to suspend these students for their violent outbursts which often injured other students. The well-behaved students are forced to sit in classrooms with uncivilized children that are extremely disruptive. Why is that?

    • says

      Why is that?

      Is this is a rhetorical question? If so, disregard my response.

      If your goal, in posting this question, is to get to the bottom of this issue, I suggest you go to Jane Elliott’s site. If you are unfamiliar with Ms. Elliott’s work, she is a highly revered, award winning teacher who conducted an experiment with her elementary class that became a documentary. She provides resources for teachers and others that help them to understand what you’ve described. If you are serious go to:

      I will say that the behavior you say you’ve observed over 18 years is the product of a complex set of conditions. Many factors come into play to produce this behavior not the least of which is the attitude and perceptions of the teacher.

    • James says

      Thanks for this! We have a child who we were considering enrolling in LAUSD, but have changed our minds.

      If our schools are deciding to pull back on discipline and conduct, it may just the beginning of the end or a once grate public school system.

      Thank you for you service!

  2. says

    As somebody who has been active in both the African-American and Chicano/Latino civil rights organizations for most of my life, I have consistently seen how LAUSD management pits groups against each other and encourages a constant fight over small pieces of the pie.

    Currently, as a National Civil Rights Commissioner and Chair of the California Civil Rights Commission for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) we take on cases of discrimination, harassment and retaliation for everybody, regardless of ethnicity or color and all too frequently have to go to bat against LAUSD for these transgressions.

  3. Susan says

    Schools are segregated because that is the way people have choosen to live. Kids are forced to go to neighborhood schools. No one is forced to live in a certain neighborhood. It is a choice of where to live.

    The failure of the school system for all races is a good case for giving parents school choice. Parents should be allowed to pick which school their child goes to just like you have a choice on where to live. If parents were given school choice they would choose the good schools and not the bad ones. Why do some want to keep the bad schools in business? Give school choice.

  4. says

    I read the article and also ask the question…Where is the outrage? I am the mother of six African American sons (ages; 29, 24, 19, 15, and twins 12)…I lived raised my older boys primarily in Compton, CA where they never attended the school system which by the way I graduated from. My older son went his entire school life attending private schools. As I got older and realized that the best public school out ranks the best private school any day…I built a plan to move from Compton to a better neighborhood. I was tired of paying for an education I believed my property taxes should subsidize. I was outraged by the fact that Compton Unified is a “public” school but Palos Verdes Unified got a better education…doesn’t public by its very nature mean that no matter where I reside I should get the same standard of education? —Where is the outrage?
    We can continue to taut about the racial divide or we can move to action…place the outrage into another avenue…In 2004 I moved my family from Compton, CA to Redondo Beach, CA. I analyzed my budget and realized I was spending monthly; Mortgage ($756.04), Auto Payment ($525), Utilities ($450), Groceries ($550) and private school education ($2,700), clothes and uniforms ($1,500) —approximately $6K…if I worked my plan correctly I could move the private education to somewhere different to make it work for me. I moved it to the mortgage on my new home where we have resided for the past 7 years. My kids are getting a better education…and yes, I have had to fight for it. Teachers that want to tell you only what your kids do wrong, awards that go missing, people that make snide comments. I was outraged…and I fought. I made it my mission to get to know the people that be, I became extremely proficient at writing letters, tracking conversations via e-Mail and doing so in a professional manner. Now they know me…Guess what? They listen to me too.
    I agree…Where is the outrage? but even more I want to know where is the plan…and where is the strategy? We cannot continue to lose our children to death, prisons and the street. Let’s stop focusing on the racism…I’m not saying forget it…but what are the ways around it? We have to work together…we have to not only become outraged but become outraged with a plan…I am happy to report my 14 year old who was diagnosed with a learning disability and has struggled the majority of his school life just received his STAR testing grades and scored Advanced in English (his most challenged subject), Math and Proficient in Science…My twins who always have done well in school are continuing to do so. My oldest son entered the workplace, my 19 year old is in college and my 24 year old is still trying to figure it all out. Let’s work together…because together we can do anything. If I can help…just ask.

  5. says

    In a school system that is now more segregated than pre-Brown vs. Board of Education, I don’t know why you are surprised by disproportionate discipline for Black students. LAUSD, whether White, Black, Latino, or Asian administrators have no expectation that Black children can learn and comport themselves consistent with this belief.

    At Audubon, when I first started teaching as a substitute, because regular teachers took every day of sick leave or showed Robo Cop to their student, there was no attempt to engage students and hold them to a high standard, while back filling the fundamental skills they had never been taught in elementary school before being socially promoted. My principal at Dorsey, who spent 2 years there fleshing out her resume, said to me, “Mr. Isenberg, this is a Black school,” in response to my trying to get kids to think and not copy or mess around.

    Decimate Black families for 400 years, so that having a father in the home is the exception to the 70% single woman head of household reality that my students were raised in goes a long way to explaining the discipline issues in a district that is more concerned with warm Black butts in seats to collect Average Daily Attendance money from the state, then doing something to change the pattern of purposeful discounting of the potential of Black youth by a system that doesn’t believe that they can learn and makes no attempt to teach them.

    My racist White upbringing and sense of entitlement came to an end when I taught in France, where my best students who spoke the best French and came from the strongest families were sub-Saharan Africans. So why don’t they learn here in America? Because if they did, it would be an embarrassment for a system designed by Whites, Coconuts, and Oreos to assure that they don’t live up to their potential- give me a 6 figure salary and I’ll turn Mama’s picture to the wall.

    Smart Black children living up to their potential would finally get this country to look at its racist past and present. Smart Black children educated to their potential would know how to parent, instead of being parents a large part of whom became parents or turned 18 as the solo measure of their being parents.

    While many have trouble with Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Childrens Zone because of its hedge fund support and his $400,000 a year salary, assuring mother get good prenatal care and nutrition, their children are read to and not hit, allow them to arrive at school not having heard 3 million less words than their more affluent- White?- peer group has somehow allowed them to test equal to toney Westchester County.

    Blacks are not inferior, but they are not superior either. If allowed to reach middle school without Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency or basic math skills, they will tear up any school rather than allow themselves to be humiliated by being asked to do that are years of grade level standards beyond their ability.

    As I await being dismissed by LAUSD for pointing out that they are fixing assessments, grades, and graduations- just like in Atlanta, D.C., Houston, and NYC, and?- of predominantly Black and Latino students, I know that if I was principal of Dorsey or Audubon, I could make major gains in 3 years. Give me 10 years of control over purposefully failed LAUSD and “school boy” would no longer be a pejorative in Black English epithet, but a sign of distinction in a culture where a Black accent still denotes ignorance. And why is it that the majority of Blacks still speak with an accent after 400+ years? That’s the kind of question that will get you called a racist or fired at LAUSD. Check out or my 25 posts on the L.A. Progressive..

    • Deborah Thorne says

      Where is the village? There are many reasons for the disparity, including racism, but where is the village? I am a Conflict Resolution Specialist and have worked on middle and high school campuses in Compton and Los Angeles Unified School Districts.

      Our children are disengaged. Many come to school only to socialize and disrupt. We have always had poor neighborhoods and poor parents, but the village picked up the slack. Our children could always depend on the “nosey old lady” on the block who corrected them and told parents everything she saw while they were at work. The neighbor cared. Now we look away when our children misbehave and parents are reluctant to correct them.

      If we are afraid of our own children, how can we expect teachers or anyone else to take them on. It starts early…ever see a kid through a tantrum in the store and no one says anything? Or a kid cursing their parent or another adult and we all stood mute?

      The kids at my schools know “Ms. D is willing to go to jail to save a child!”

      It takes a village to raise a child. Where is the village?

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